An inquiry opened by the UK Charity Commission in May 2014 to investigate the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain’s handling and oversight of safeguarding matters, including child protection advice provided to individual Jehovah’s Witness (JW) congregations found that “a total of 67 allegations of child abuse were made between 2009 and 2019 against 67 individuals involved in JW congregations, whether as Elders, ministerial servants or otherwise.”
The inquiry was opened initially in 2007 into the London Mill Hill Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses after an Elder was convicted for historic sexual offences involving 13 young people over a period of 15 years. These offences were committed whilst he was a member of a JW congregation. The congregation was not aware of these offences at the time of the individual’s appointment as an Elder and the inquiry stated that the congregation took the appropriate steps to remove him from serving as an Elder at the time of his initial arrest in 2006.
The Commission’s inquiry into the London Mill Hill Congregation finds that it did not have a child protection policy in place at the time. On 1st February 2011, the charity distributed the Child Protection Policy (‘2011 Policy’) to all Bodies of Elders in the United Kingdom and Ireland, to which all Elders were expected to adhere.
One key issue which emerged during the inquiry was the extent to which the charity itself remained responsible for ensuring children and vulnerable people are safe from harm within JW congregations.
Cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Pennsylvania raise similar concerns
In July of this year CNN reported that five members of JW congregations were charged with child sexual abuse by the Pennsylvania’s attorney general following a years long investigation into allegations of sexual abuse in the religious community.
The children were all also members of JW congregations, and the alleged abusers gained access to – and the trust of the victims – through the organization, authorities said. The cases include alleged sexual abuse of 4-year-old child and a developmentally disabled victim.
In October of the previous year, also in the state of Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced criminal charges ranging from “rape, indecent assault to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse against four individuals.”
“These cases are disturbing, the allegations hard to imagine, and all share one common tie. The 19 victims and the four men who are being charged with sexually violating them are all members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. These children deserved to be protected and grow up in peace, not to be preyed upon,” said Shapiro. “My office will not stop until these defendants are held accountable for their crimes against innocent children and until justice is achieved for these courageous survivors.”
A fifth man was charged in July of this year apparently as part of the same investigation. In total, it is reported, nine men in Pennsylvania with connections to the Jehovah’s Witnesses are facing charges of child sexual abuse .
The charges in Pennsylvania have, as in the UK, called into question the controversial church’s handling of child sexual abuse. In both countries investigators have been critical of the JW’s ‘two witness rule’ as part of its internal disciplinary processes. This means that if there is an absence of confession from the accused, the evidence of two material witnesses is required to establish an allegation, something that is highly unlikely given that abuse generally occurs in private.
IICSA says ‘two witness rule’ has “no place in any response to child sexual abuse”
The UK Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (‘IICSA’) set up to due to serious concerns that some organisations were failing to protect children from abuse, said of the rule… “…it has no place in any response to child sexual abuse and fails to reflect the reality that by its very nature child sexual abuse is most often perpetrated in the absence of witnesses. The rule’s capacity to cause harm to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse is clear. We have received first-hand evidence of this harm. As it presently operates, the Jehovah’s Witnesses internal disciplinary process for disfellowshipping members bears no relationship to how sexual crime happens.”
A 2016 report by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that: “the Jehovah’s Witness organisation’s internal disciplinary system for addressing complaints of child sexual abuse was not child or survivor focused. Survivors are offered little or no choice in how their complaint is addressed, sanctions are weak with little regard to the risk of the perpetrator re-offending.”
Finally, the Royal Commission considered the organisation’s general practice of not reporting serious instances of child sexual abuse to policy or authorities, demonstrated a serious failure on its part to provide for the safety and protection of children.
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